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GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Batman - J - K


Batman-Judge Dredd: Judgment on Gotham  1991 (SC GN) 64 pages

cover by Simon BiselyWritten by Alan Grant, John Wagner. Illustrated and painted by Simon Bisely.
Letters: Todd Klein. Editors: Denny O'Neil, Steve MacManus.

Co-published with Fleetway Publications.

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Mature Readers

Batman meets Judge Dredd (and Judge Anderson) while villain Judge Death meets villain the Scarecrow.

Batman is, of course, a costumed vigilante who lives in modern day Gotham City and is published by DC Comics. British creation Judge Dredd is a draconian police officer/judge/jury all in one who lives in a distant future and was published by Fleetway Publications (and various other companies in the U.S. -- including DC briefly). This company crossover has a Dredd villain, Judge Death (pursued by another Dredd villain, the comic relief Mean Machine) arriving in modern day Gotham City, while Batman gets flung into Dredd's future/alternate reality of Mega-City One. While Judge Death teams up with Batman's foe the Scarecrow in Gotham, Batman gets arrested by Judge Dredd in Mega-City One, eventually escaping with the aid of a more level headed, female judge, Judge Anderson. The two return to Gotham City to tackle the villains who're on a killing spree, with Judge Dredd in pursuit.

Judgment on Gotham (the first of three team-ups between the two) is kind of uneven. Judge Dredd is one of those comics which fans seem to acknowledge is violent and even fascist, but is labelled satirical. And this story is clearly meant to be silly in spots, but that's part of the problem. It's cute, it's even amusing...but it rarely quite becomes funny. Mean Machine is a big guy with a dial on his head that he can adjust to make himself meaner, whose chief tactic is to head butt people. That's kind of absurdly amusing the first couple of times, but wears thin after a while. Still, the story trundles doggedly along for the most part, not being particularly good, not being particularly terrible, but the conventional plot seems like John Wagner and Alan Grant (writers of both Judge Dredd and, in Grant's case, Batman) presumably banged it out over a cup of coffee (before their coffee had time to cool) and doesn't offer any surprises or clever ideas. And the violent climax just kind of drags on and on until, I'll confess, ennui set in.

Even the fish-out-of-water idea is barely explored. Batman doesn't really get a chance to run around Mega-City One, nor does Dredd explore Gotham. You come away not really having much sense of either characters' reality.

There are practical concerns with the story, too. Crossovers, let's face it, are not so much artistic excercises, but commercial ones. Two companies get together, hoping they can tap a new audience. That is, a Batman fan buys it, and gets turned on to Judge Dredd, or vice versa.

But Batman's a bit out of his element in a story that's not meant to be taken seriously. A dramatic character can function in a comedic environment as long as the character can stay in character. But the problem with a satire is that it's not really meant to be held up to analysis. Batman can't comment on what he really thinks of Judge Dredd's reality (other than a brief quip about Dredd being "gestapo"), 'cause it would force Judge Dredd into a more serious corner. As such, Batman has to be a bit of a blank slate, character-wise. Even ability-wise he is underused -- he doesn't escape from jail using his skills or intellect, he is broken out by Judge Anderson.

Judge Dredd fares even less well, appearing in only a few scenes in his own team up! Judge Anderson is featured more.

Wagner and Grant seem far more interested in the villains. More than a third of the pages are devoted to the villains (Judge Death, Scarecrow, Mean Machine) traipsing around with nary a hero in sight -- more pages, in fact, than are devoted to scenes of the heroes without the villains! I'm kind of cool to the idea that villains are more interesting than heroes, particularly when the villains are such motiveless, anarchic characters. And in the case of Judge Death, such a brutally violent character.

Simon Bisely's painted art is another mixed bag, all cartoony distortions, inflated muscles and extraneous lines and paint splotches. Painted comics are always kind of neat, and there's a certain atmosphere at work...but other times it works against any mood, with busy panels that are hard to figure out what's going on. It's certainly not a style that lends itself to subtle facial expressions which would convey emotion or characterization. And he seems to have one (surrealistc) style, meaning his Gotham (with cops driving racing cars and morgues like something out of gothic sci-fi) and Mega-City One look pretty homogeneous, robbing the story of what should be its point: the contrast between Batman and Dredd.

Recommended for mature readers due to violence. There's also a scene where Judge Death shows his willy, if that appeals to ya. Judge Anderson (the pretty, female character) has a couple of racy panels, too, but is draped in shadow. Ultimately, this is for Batman or Judge Dredd completists, but others might prefer to get a sample of these guys elsewhere.

Cover price: $6.95 CDN./ $5.95 USA.


Batman: The Killing Joke - cover by Brian Bolland

Batman: The Killing Joke 1988 (SC GN), 48 pgs.

Written by Alan Moore. Art by Brian Bolland.
Colours: John Higgins. Letters: Richard Starkings. Editor: Denny O'Neil.

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 3

Mature Readers

The Joker, remembering how he was once a normal guy, driven insane by circumstances, sets out to prove it could happen to anyone. He cripples Barbara Gordon (the former Batgirl), and tries to drive her dad, Commissioner Gordon, insane with the crime. Batman eventually catches up with him.

I didn't much care for Batman: The Killing Joke, this definitely-not-for-kids story that most people revere. Firstly, it's not really a Batman story: not in the sense that Bats accomplishes much (he only finds the Joker because the Joker sends him an invitation!) or his character is explored or even that he has many lines. Essentially, it's the Joker's story.

The real problem, though, is that it's emotionally hollow. Alan Moore comes from the generation of writers (in movies, books, and comics) that equates "art" with brutality, where character and story are less important than "pushing the envelope". The Killing Joke is pretty icky...not to mention capable of being interpreted as misogynistic. The two female characters are just there to be brutalized to provide motivation for the male characters. This is particularly disturbing with Barbara Gordon, a long time DC character, whose emotional reaction to her own crippling is never even touched upon. Alan Moore (and co.) obviously consider her personal trauma irrelevant.

The story is awfully thin and never really delivers emotionally, or intellectually, and seem a little like a shaggy dog story in any event. I've never been that impressed with Moore's dialogue, but lines like "you whimpering little smear of slime" don't even warrant a comment. Alan Moore likes to play around with juxtaposition: words to images, images to images. But unlike, say, Frank Miller (at least, at the time), there's little emotional or thematic justification to them. A guy pulling the legs off his seafood dinner is juxtaposed with a doctor tugging on Barbara's paralysed legs. But what's the point, the subtext? At most it's a tasteless gag...and another indication of how Alan Moore and Brian Bolland feel about their female characters.

On the other hand, the story about the "two guys in a lunatic asylum" is memorable (though I'm not convinced it really meant anything).

Brian Bolland's art is O.K., but his "realist" figures can seem a little stiff, robbing the (overlong) action scenes of energy. And his Batman looks like just a guy in a cape...and about as intimidating as Adam West.

I would argue a better, emotionally richer (and better plotted) take on the Batman-Joker relationship, and the Joker's insanity, was J.M. DeMatteis and Joe Staton's Going Sane story line published a few years later in Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight (granted, writer DeMatteis had twice as many pages to play with).

I'm also a bit dismayed by the hypocrisy inherent in a comic like this. It was released as a graphic novel, with a "mature reader" warning, because it contains material inappropriate for a regular comic with its broader-based readership. Fine. Very responsible. Except...the story contains material (the crippling of Barbara Gordon) that has a direct impact on regular Batman comics, meaning, if you were a Bat-fan, you kind of had to buy it. In other words, DC comics protests and says, "Oh no, kids, this isn't for you" and then winks and says, "But if you want your collection to make sense...heh heh." Pretty sleazy. If a comic/graphic novel contains material inappropriate for younger readers, it should be self-contained, and not require younger readers to buy it. Others have been guilty of the same thing (DAREDEVIL: Love and War, for one) but the level of potentially "objectionable" material in Batman: The Killing Joke is so extreme, and the impact on continuity so major, it's the most blatant offender by far.

Still, proving that nothing is sacrosanct in comics, even this story, for all its accolades, has been somewhat nudged aside by later -- different -- Joker origins, including in Lovers and Madmen.

Original cover price: $4.50 CDN./$3.50 USA


Batman: King Tut's Tomb 2010 (SC TPB) 128 pgs.

cover by Garcia-LopezWritten by Nunzio deFilippis & Christina Weird, with Gerry Conway, J.M. DeMatteis. Pencils by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez. Inks by Kevin Nowlan, others.
Colours/letters: various

Reprinting: Batman: Confidential #26-28, Brave and The Bold #164, 171, Batman #353 (with covers) - 1980-1982, 2009

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

First reviewed: Jan, 2012

I was surprised to realize that King Tut, a recurring villain in the 1960s camp-classic Batman TV series (played by Victor Buono)...was not actually based on a character from the comic books. Even though I had never come across him in the comics, I always assumed he was some 1950s villain that had simply faded into obscurity. But apparently he had no comic book counterpart...until now.

Finally, after more than four decades, DC Comics decided to give the comic book Batman a King Tut villain...with mixed results.

I mean, right up front: King Tut's Tomb is a perfectly enjoyable, perfectly Old School Batman adventure. Published in the pages of Batman: Confidential (which replaced Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight as a place to tell self-contained Bat-arcs by different creative teams) it boasts art by the great Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez (here nicely embellished by Kevin Nowlan), who has graced Batman a time or two over the years. Garcia-Lopez has a hyper-realist style that, nonetheless, suits Batman's world. That is he's just as at home drawing a bright, daylight character like Superman (and, yeah, DC should tag him for an all-original Superman graphic novel) but nonetheless he's good at capturing Batman's swirling cape and pointy ears. Still, this is definitely more a super hero Batman than a dark, gothic, creature of the night Batman. But the art alone is a big selling point (even if Garcia-Lopez does slide a bit into self-conscious cheesecake, what with a female character who always seems to be in lingerie when we look in on her! -- not that that's necessarily a criticism).

You might think if they were finally going to introduce a King Tut after so many years it was because they had a pretty snazzy story to tell -- wouldn't you? Instead, it's a pretty minor, pretty generic story. A new costumed villain, dressed as an Egyptian Pharaoh, starts killing members of the board of directors of the museum. It's basically the kind of tale Batman has been doing since 1939 -- except back then it would've been told in about 12 pages!

The added quirk is that King Tut tends to utter riddles during his crimes (a bit of a plot leap, as it's sometimes only by coincidence anyone survives to recount the riddles to Batman). Batman at first assumes his old foe, The Riddler, is involved...and then reluctantly teams up with The Riddler in hunting Tut. That's a cute addition to the familiar premise, and provides some wit and comedy as the Batman is very grudgingly saddled with this unwanted sidekick. For all that there is murder, essentially this is a lighter Bat-tale -- basically just an old fashioned romp. (Though, personally, I would argue if you are going for a lighter Bat-tale, you should really cut back on the body count).

But though it's a cute pairing, and adds a few twists to the hoary hunt-the-series-killer plot, even it suffers from a certain familiarity, as Batman has reluctantly teamed with the Riddler before (being, I suppose, one of Batman's less homicidal foes). Heck, a reformed Riddler was even a recurring character in the Batman comics for a while a year or two before this, acting as a private eye, getting in Batman's hair.

And so that becomes the problem of how to rate this. As I say: it's a fun little story. But there's next to nothing here to make it stand out, or to warrant three issues! There's little underlining the basic plot -- no emotional undercurrent, no particular character exploration. There is some minor complication (aside from the Riddler) in that there's a sub-plot involving some other characters having embezzled from the museum...but it doesn't really add much to the story. Even when Batman deduces Tut's identity half way through, his motivation is pretty straightforward (nor is it even a surprise revelation as he's no one we'd met before).

And even as King Tut was going around murdering people, and Batman and the police would stake out his likely targets, I was kind of wondering what the fuss was about -- he didn't seem to have any powers or special abilities, nor did he even especially out-wit the heroes or mis-direct them. In fact, it's kind of amazing he accomplishes as much as he does!

You also might think if you were going to lift the familiar TV character onto the comics...you'd stick to the familiar character. But they do...and they don't. Yes, he's an Egyptologist with a Tut fixation, but otherwise he's just a generic Bat-villain (not even rolly polly, as Buono was). My memory of the TV Tut was that there was a certain poignancy to him (within the context of the tongue-in-cheek series) because he suffered from a spilt personality, so he was both a nice guy professor...and a diabolical villain. But here they discard that. Or rather, they pay homage to it by having the prof bump his head, and the Riddler remarking "he took a blow to the head and thinks he's a dead pharaoh"...but it doesn't come across as though that was the cause of his homicidal inclinations (and he doesn't switch back and forth). But a nod to the TV series is reflected in the fact that the comic book Tut's alter ego's name is Victor Goodman -- an obvious play on Victor Buono.

There are some interesting ideas: Tut worships the sun, so sees Batman (a creature of the night) as "evil", and the reason for his antipathy toward the Riddler...but not enough to really make you think this King Tut has the stuff to become the next great Bat-foe (a fact that even the writers seem to acknowledge by a little twist toward the end).

The result is a fun, perfectly okay -- even appealingly innocent -- Bat-tale...that we've seen a zillion times before, usually told in one issue...maybe two.

Padding out this collection (which otherwise would only be three issues!) are a trio of older Batman reprints connected by Garcia-Lopez's art (not that this is the entirety of his work on the character). Two are pretty outlandish, involving fantasy and SF aspects. The first, a team up between Batman and Hawkman from The Brave & The Bold (a comic regularly featuring Batman teaming with a guest star hero) actually boasts a thematic connection to the main story, as it too involves happenings at a museum. It's an agreeable if breezy romp, and it's nice to see the Silver Age Hawkman, back before DC Comics decided to re-invent him as a knuckle dragging bruiser! (For more on that, see my various Hawkman reviews). The other story from Brave & The Bold has Batman time travelling (or possibly dreaming) and teaming up during the Civil War with Native American Scalphunter -- for a story that starts out well, though feels a bit undeveloped in terms of plot and character growth. Maybe it's more just about the historical milieu and period atmosphere (the Civil War being a conflict particularly favoured by American amateur historians -- though I'm not sure doctors understood about the need to keep people warm when suffering from shock in the 19th Century). Still, it's an agreeable romp, made more so just by the atypically outlandish (for Batman) time travel idea.

The final story is a more traditional Bat-tale involving Batman matching wits with the Joker -- it's okay, but pretty generic, with the Joker's scheme even more frivolous and inconsequential than usual.

Still, like with the title story -- they're all adequate page turners. Which maybe sums up this collection: nothing that memorable, but perfectly okay, eschewing the overt grim and grittiness of a lot of Bat tales, and given a boost by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez's art throughout. And maybe that's all it needs to be. Certainly after a second reading (now with more modest expectations) I enjoyed the main story more, the clean, striking art, the brisk pace, and the witty dialogue and exchanges between Batman and The Riddler.

And as a self-contained collection, just to be read for itself, it's fun.

Cover price: $14.99 USA.


Batman, The Dark Knight, vol. 1: Knight Terrors 2012 (SC TPB) 196 pgs.

coverWritten by Paul Jenkins (co-story David Finch), with Judd Winick, Joe Harris. Illustrated by David Finch, with Ed Benes. Inkers by Richard Friend, with Rob Hunter, Jack Purcell.
Colours: Alex Sinclair, Jeromy Cox, Sonia Oback. Letters: Sal Cipriano, Steve Wands. Editor: Mike Marts.

Reprinting: Batman: The Dark Knight #1-9 (2011-2012)

Additional notes: sketch gallery; covers;

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

First reviewed: Feb. 2015

Because I dip in and out of comics, sometimes reading things randomly, I'm not always completely up to speed on continuity. Which is something I make part of my reviews. I review things from the point of view of the TPB, and whether it's worth reading for itself, and itself alone.

I make that point because this collects the inaugural story arc of a new Batman comic (it starts from #1!) but I'm not really sure how this fits into overall continuity. A year or two ago DC apparently implemented yet anther one of its re-boots where -- so I believe -- it's kind of starting its characters from 0. Yet, as with such previous reboots (dating back to the Crisis on Infinite Earths) it doesn't make a clean break from the past. Or maybe I've just misunderstood, but certainly a story like this seems to be acknowledging years of continuity.

So, as I say: let's just consider it for itself alone.

Although even that's hard to do because, well, frankly it just struck me as terribly familiar and terribly derivative. Now as I've written before, being someone who has read a zillion comics, perhaps I'm more inclined to notice such repetition than a more transitory reader.

The saga is this: Batman gets called in to a mass break-out at Arkham Asylum where many of his arch foes are housed. But once he gets there, not only does he have to deal with them, but with bizarre, mutated versions of them, more crazy and vicious than before, thanks to some new drug that supposedly robs someone of their fears and inhibitions (and apparently also acts like a super steroid!). So over the next few issues Batman races around Gotham, battling various key foes, or key foes masquerading as other key foes, trying to locate the mastermind behind it all. Meanwhile, in an on-going sub-plot, Commissioner Gordon is being hounded at work by a Mayor and an Internal Affairs cop trying to get him to resign in part over his close ties with Batman.

And, yeah, all that sounds pretty standard.

The overall arc reminds me of some of Jeph Loeb's sagas (Hush, The Long Halloween) with its rather thinly plotted excuse to trot out various key foes for issue-by-issue smackdowns (plus a few key allies, like Superman, crop up). One can also see in it echoes of Knightfall (mass break-out at Arkham), Arkham Asylum (ditto, and with the villains reimagined as creepier and more deranged than usual), and even Child of Dreams (a drug that creates exaggerated versions of his foes). (Many of the above are reviewed elsewhere on this site -- fyi). Even the villains behind it all are pretty much the go-to suspects for a saga involving. (A) a fear drug and (B) a steroid drug that makes people super aggressive (go ahead, jot down your guesses). While sub-plots involving someone trying to force Gordon's resignation seem to occurr in almost every era of Batman ever since Gerry Conway's tenure back in the early 1980s (and maybe earlier).

Indeed, that's what the story feels like -- like Jenkins (and maybe even more relevantly artist Finch, who co-plots) just wanted to go to town on a fanboy indulgence, dragging out all the toys. And maybe as the first story arc of a new Batman title that was the point.

All of which would be fine. In a never ending franchise like Batman it is inevitable themes are recycled and maybe I just happen to have read the particular stories that inspired this. But here's the problem: it doesn't do them better. Indeed, it barely does anything with the ideas beyond my above description. It's all very fine to re-use basic story foundations if you then come up with interesting variations or new approaches. But creators Jenkins and Finch don't.

The only new ideas are a prominent guest appearance by the Flash in a few issues -- The Flash not being a usual Batman supporting player (though the Flash has been made Barry Allen again, they still seem to write him like Wally West) -- and the introduction of a possible romantic interest for Bruce Wayne. But she only has a few scenes in this entire TPB and she's actually a sub-plot, rather than a newly added love interest (she has some sinister agenda that goes unexplained here).

Another reason this reminds me of Hush inparticular is because of David Finch's art which is more than a little evocative of Jim Lee's. So it seems like Hush (an epic saga that is just an exercise to trot out various key friends and foes) and it looks like Hush.

It's worth staying with the art because some of the (good) reviews I saw of this emphasized the great art. And certainly I was attracted to it because I had some recollection of coming upon Finch's art before and being impressed. Unfortunately -- he didn't impress me as much here. Now let me quickly explain that, yes, it's great and full of detail, and big muscly men and grisly monsters and long-legged gals and all that cool stuff. But (and not unlike Lee) that's the thing: it's pretty (if dark) pictures, but it's less effective as storytelling. Finch draws everyone kind of the same, the men with flat, square features and pinched noses -- the women, too. There isn't any nuance to the expressions, nor to the body language. In the script Batman spends most of it as Batman, running across roof tops, and the art doesn't do anything to humanize it anymore. Heck, that love interest I mentioned? Batman immediately notices that she looks just like the mysterious women running about through the story in a Playboy bunny costume (no, really!) but, honestly, it's not really clear Finch could draw different looking women even if he wanted to.

It all feels just kind of tired and, well, soulless. To be fair, at least Finch doesn't entirely swamp us with protracted fight scenes, which instead are often tight and economical. But, as I say: it's not like there's anything more to the story or the characterization. Jenkins has Batman's running voice-over constantly reflecting on themes about fear and such (the saga called Knight Terrors), as though the story is supposed to have deep meaning and thoughtful undercurrents. But it just feels sprayed on after the fact, rather than intrinsic. You could remove the captions and it wouldn't affect the scenes.

I started out saying I wasn't really sure how this related to overall continuity. Though the plot (such as it is) is mainly contained here, there are some aspects (like the Gordon stuff) that makes me wonder if it was overlapping with concurrent Batman titles, as sometimes they seem to be referring to things that didn't happen here -- even as that sub-plot itself doesn't really progress or develop much.

The main storyline concludes with issues #7. Issue #8 almost feels like it was meant as a Reader's Digest version of the saga, as once more Batman is running around after some crazier-than-usual versions of his foes (here drawn by guest artist Ed Benes). While #9 is meant to tie into what was an on-going plotline involving the Court of the Owls or something. And even though as a plot it's sort of self-contained, equally, it's hard to get too much out of it just by itself.

So here's the thing: this is the sort of story that I know a lot of readers will dig. It trundles along at a good clip, never really slowing down. The art is lavish and splashy. And there's a right wing/fascist undercurrent some fans enjoy (sorry, but the whole Gordon plot smacks of the usual: "cops are infallible and the greatest threat to civilization is weak liberals" conservative ethos).

But it just struck me as bland, forgettable, and soulless lacking much true "plot" or characterization. The best bits just felt borrowed from other stories, and even the bland bits felt borrowed from other stories. And given the main plot stretches over 7 issues -- it's just a movie serial, rather than an epic plot of story threads, and twists and turns. There was a time when a seven issue saga would've been considered a magnum opus.

Cover price: __.


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